Who Is In Charge

How a Memphis lawmaker quietly passed a law that may have kept your school from state takeover

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Rep. Raumesh Akbari

State Rep. Raumesh Akbari sits at ease in principal Monekea Smith’s office at Hamilton High School, down the road from Graceland, across the street from Akbari’s grandmother’s house — and nearly four hours and a world away from the state Capitol, where she spends much of her time.

When Smith speaks with a school colleague on her walkie-talkie and signs off “Love Hamilton,” Akbari instinctively offers up the appropriate response: “Absolutely!”

Only someone familiar with the storied Memphis school and its culture would know that “Love Hamilton, Absolutely!” is Hamilton’s longstanding motto, emblazoned on the school’s walls and often exchanged by alumni.

Akbari has both a deep knowledge of the community she represents and a deep appreciation for policy, enabling her to straddle two worlds and connect them in a way that leads to meaningful change.

“If you cannot identify with people or with a problem, then it’s difficult for you to create policy that can solve it,” Akbari says later, explaining how she’s been able to find impactful legislative solutions to public education challenges in Memphis.

In the last five years, the legislature has passed a slew of laws targeting the state’s lowest performing schools, many of which are in Memphis.

Against that backdrop this spring, Akbari shepherded into law a policy change that ended up protecting 10 struggling-but-improving schools from state intervention. It also brought clarity to the complex and often contentious school turnaround process under the Tennessee Achievement School District.

In so doing, the Memphis Democrat managed to build consensus among lawmakers and state leaders, including founding ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic, in favor of the school turnaround game-changer.

“Her just reaching out initially and having a conversation before it even got to the point of a bill was great,” Barbic said. “That doesn’t always happen.”

Rep. Raumesh Akbari
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Rep. Raumesh Akbari

At age 31, Akbari (her name rhymes with blackberry) is the youngest member of the legislature and also an attorney. She has quickly risen to become one of the legislature’s most effective voices on educational issues — despite rarely raising her voice in House Education meetings or on the House floor.

In addition to holding public office, she works for Akbari Corp., started in 1981 by her Iranian-born father and Memphian mom. Most of Akbari’s mother’s family attended Hamilton. She jokes that someone from her family graduated from the school every year during the 1970s.

Like many of the schools in Akbari’s district, Hamilton is a priority school, meaning it ranks academically among the bottom 5 percent of schools statewide. Hamilton also is part of Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, the local district’s own school turnaround initiative.

During her recent school visit, Akbari and Hamilton’s principal enjoyed an instant rapport based on mutual acquaintances and a fluency in Memphis institutions, especially schools. Because of Akbari’s roots, she understands Memphians’ intense loyalty to neighborhood schools, and why the suggestion of state intervention unleashes feelings of confusion, frustration and even anger.

Akbari herself is a product of Memphis-area schools. She attended Chimney Rock Elementary, Cordova Middle and Cordova High schools before receiving her college degree at Washington University in St. Louis and a law degree from St. Louis University. But she always knew that one day she would return home. In high school, she had participated in the Memphis Challenge program encouraging students with high ACT scores to settle eventually in Memphis to serve their city.

Because of her 12 years in Memphis City and legacy Shelby County Schools, Akbari has a nuanced view of public education.

“I’m a product of the city and county schools, and I know what public schools can do,” she says. “It will be a disservice if we don’t invest in these schools.”

She also knows firsthand the schools’ weaknesses.

“When I got to Wash U, I did not feel as prepared as other students. I had a high ACT score, a high GPA, but other students were a little bit more prepared,” she recalls.

Akbari didn’t expect to become politically involved at such a young age. But the House seat in her district suddenly opened up when longtime Rep. Lois DeBerry died in 2013. Then 29, Akbari claimed 89 percent of the vote to defeat an independent candidate. She successfully retained the seat the following year in a regular election.

During her campaigns, the state’s new Achievement School District was a top concern among constituents worried about the state encroaching on neighborhood schools, even those that are chronically underperforming. Because the ASD had not been in existence during her school years, Akbari had to do her homework.

One of the schools in her district, Alcy Elementary, was being considered for ASD charter conversion because of low performance, or to be closed by Shelby County Schools because of declining enrollment. However, when Akbari visited Alcy and talked with the principal, she saw a school that was improving — and test scores bore that out.

“If a school is on the priority list, but they’re making changes, it’s not worth it to take them through the stress of turnaround,” she said. “That’s not a good use of  the ASD’s resources.”

Akbari drafted a bill that would let a school try its own turnaround, rather than being taken over by the statewide district, if the school received top-level TVAAS value-added growth scores of 4 or 5, replaced the principal, or was designated a community school that offers non-academic services such as physical and mental health services.

School motto "Love Hamilton Absolutely!" adorns the walls of Hamilton High School.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
School motto “Love Hamilton Absolutely!” adorns the walls of Hamilton High School.

Armed with feedback from her Memphis constituents and Shelby County school board members, she workshopped the bill with Barbic and the Tennessee Department of Education. She knew if they gave the nod, she’d get other lawmakers’ support.

“If I don’t get something people are willing to support, then I’m going to be failing at the starting line,” she said. “I could file something to prove a point or raise awareness, but it’s not going to be able to pass.”

The bill eventually was streamlined to include the TVAAS provision. And, of the 22 bills filed in 2015 aimed at changing ASD operations, it was the only one to pass. In fact, it cleared both chambers unanimously.

The seemingly innocuous bill has had a surprisingly tangible impact in the state’s two largest cities. Because of the new law, when the ASD unveiled its newest targets this fall for takeover and conversion, seven schools in Memphis and three in Nashville were no longer eligible and instead were given time to improve on their own.

“It is tremendous,” said Shante Avant, a Shelby County Schools board member of the new law, which she said gives local educators and students a sense of empowerment. “It means to them that they have come together as a community and made things happen.”

Barbic said the law has helped state turnaround efforts, too — by making the criteria for state intervention clearer. That, in turn, has made the ASD more transparent.

“Before, we could explain all we wanted and I think [the criteria for turnaround] was objective, but folks felt it lacked transparency,” he said. “Now, it’s clear. It’s black and white.”

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.